With an estimated population of 275 million in North America, the mourning dove is one of the most-abundant and recognizable birds in the land. In the South, Labor Day weekend brings hunters from all walks of life into fields for the opening day of the dove season.
While some hunters target deer and turkey and others painfully anticipate the arrival of the first wave of blue-winged teal, every shotgun-carrying Carolinian goes dove hunting, even if just on the opening weekend. Across the Carolinas, the opening day of dove season brings more than 60,000 hunters out of hiding — more than any other single hunting day.
For diehard dove hunters, the opening day festivities are scheduled well advance with a local dove club membership, where the fields are prepared and ready for the opening day blitz. For many others, a good shoot is just a short drive away from home on both public and private lands.
Learn how to find a good field and where the best places to set up are to reach a quick 15-bird limit during the first season.
Even though doves are considered migratory birds, dove migration is considered less dramatic than the big move south by waterfowl, according to Michael Hook, the small-game project leader for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
“Doves tend to get a lot of focus in our state and in our department,” Hook said. “We started banding doves in 2003 in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The band returns are giving us more information than we would otherwise know — like harvest rates, population estimates and migration data.”
Between 30,000 to 50,000 doves are banded annually across the country, with approximately 3,600 banded in the Carolinas. According to 15 years of band-recovery data, the overwhelming majority of the annual dove harvest is resident birds, not those migrating from northern states.
“Field collection from the banding program runs between July 1 and Aug. 15,” Hook said. “Most of our band returns come from 5 to 10 miles from where initially captured. The birds aren’t moving a whole lot this time of year. We had 110 band returns last year; only eight were killed out of state, and they were all from adjacent states: including North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.
“However, the birds may certainly migrate regionally to the south into neighboring states if they survive the initial season. More often, birds from the north migrate into our area due to harsh winter conditions, and that isn’t generally until November or December. Our resident flocks will remain local if the food remains available and if the weather remains favorable.”
The bottom line is, the majority of the birds available for the first part of dove season live fairly close to where they were hatched. For the best opening day opportunity, hunters need to pay close attention to where doves have been all summer. The best habitat will attract and keep the largest flocks around.
“Doves need food, water and cover,” Hook said. “If they have everything they need, they aren’t going anywhere. But, doves will not think twice about traveling long distances to find a more stable food source or if hunting pressure increases.”
Doves need a solid food source; they aren’t choosy when it comes to food, with seeds making up 99 percent of their daily intake. From native grass seeds and pokeberries to common agriculture grains, doves will stay around any available food source. Manicured crop fields filled with corn, watermelons, sunflowers or millet are a jackpot for doves seeking a reliable food source. Hunters should scout and find fields with abundant grain and a clean surface down below.
“A clean surface with seeds all over the ground makes it easy on them, since they can’t push through the heavy stuff with their small legs,” Hook said. “Keeping it clean is huge. They will not think twice about flying a long way if they need to find a better food source.”
For doves, size does matter according to Doug Howell, the migratory gamebird coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Larger fields in heavy agriculture areas are typically the ones that will receive the most usage.
“Doves are strong fliers and prefer large expanses of open area for daily movements,” Howell said. “Fields that are 10 acres or (larger) tend to have the best potential for concentrating huntable numbers of birds, and the larger the better.”
Doves like to stay on a good food source when they can. Birds that have found a good food source early in the summer will remain on it until the season opens or the groceries dissipate.
“If possible, cut the corn early and condition the birds to feeding early,” Hook said. “You will draw them in from a long distance, providing a solid food source before other fields mature.”
Unfortunately, dove hunters don’t always have complete control over when the crops are harvested and dove food becomes available, but they can scout to see what fields are cut early and ask permission to hunt. These fields will bring the birds in early and ensure a good hunt on opening day, which is Saturday, Sept. 1, in both Carolinas. And as long as the opening day pressure isn’t too severe, the birds will remain local, not having a reason to leave.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, approximately 14 million doves are harvested. In the Carolinas, roughly a million doves are harvested throughout the season and 75 percent of the harvest is during the September segment. If there was ever a time to get a piece of the action, the first season is by far the best time to set a target on a limit of doves.